by B.J. Hollars
Fifteen minutes into our first lesson at The Kung Pow School for Martial Arts, my daughter Joan and I struggle through the proper pronunciation of the word “karate.”
“Ka-ra-te,” Sensei Doug demonstrates.
“Carrot-y,” I parrot back.
“No, no. Watch my lips, David. Ka-ra-te.”
Joan snorts as Sensei Doug’s eyelids flitter.
“Look, can you give me a ‘rhymes with’?” I ask.
“It rhymes with…well, it doesn’t really rhyme with anything,” Sensei Doug admits.
“So like orange?” Joan says.
“The word ‘orange.’ It doesn’t really rhyme with anything, either. We learned that at school.”
Sensei Doug squints.
“Yes, but the word is not orange. It’s ka-ra-te.”
“Maybe we ought to jump ahead to the board chopping,” I suggest. “What do you say?”
What Sensei Doug should have said is, “Absolutely not,” but that would have required him to fill our time with some other skill he didn’t particularly want to teach us. Past-his-prime ninja warrior that he is, I get the distinct sense that Sensei Doug is looking for the path of least resistance. Which is why, when searching for a board to break, he goes with a half-incher.
Laying it across two waist-high stacks of blocks, he demonstrates his palm strike in the air. “Consider your breathing,” he says as the three of us slow-motion the move in unison.
“Mind over matter, isn’t that right?” I ask. Sensei Doug, who by now has mostly wised up to my assholery, chooses not to dignify my question with a response. My eyes veer toward Joan, who strikes the air with all the force a ten-year-old can muster. Brow furrowed, her blue eyes press hard against the board.
“I think you’re getting it,” I whisper.
“I’m not sure you are,” she whispers back.
Sensei Doug towels off his bald head, then gets down to business.
“Before we begin, I’ll remind you not to try this at home,” he says, shooting us a look.
“She won’t,” I promise. “She doesn’t even know where we keep the boards.”
“And you?” Sensei Doug asks.
“Sure, I know where we keep them. In the shed behind the—”
“David, what I mean is, you won’t do anything to put yourself in danger?”
“Doug, I think I’m old enough to make my own decisions.”
Joan shoots me her don’t-get-into-a-fight-with-the-sensei look, and so, against my better judgement, I stand down.
Sensei Doug, meanwhile, returns his attention to the board, squares his shoulders, then releases a squeal straight out of central casting.
Nonetheless, it does the trick. He busts that board in two, each piece toppling to the matted yellow floor.
I release a low whistle. “You got any more boards in need of chopping?”
“David, as I’ve already said—”
“Jesus, I’m not going to try it at home, okay? I’m going to try it right here.”
Sensei Doug says nothing. Either he’s pondering the secrets of the universe or trying to recall if he renewed his liability insurance.
“Come on,” I press. “Can’t a guy get a break?”
The joke does not receive the reception itdeserves.
“Fine,” Sensei Doug sighs, moving toward the stack of boards to retrieve one. “What do I know?”
“Arigato,” I say, offering him a slight bow.
Sensei Doug places the board atop the blocks, then walks away, washing his hands clean of it.
“Mind over matter,” I say, taking a step back. “Mind over…”
I thrust my palm downward with the force of a thousand suns. Or a hundred suns. Or however the hell many it takes.
“We’re home!” Joan calls half an hour later, her blonde ponytail bouncing behind her.
“There’s my girl,” Sheila says. Her eyes drift from our daughter’s face to the bag of ice on my hand. “Do I dare ask?”
“I wouldn’t,” Joan says, slipping past her mother en route to the kitchen.
Sheila’s eyes turn to me.
“Care to comment?”
“We may have signed up for karate lessons.”
There it is. That look. Her look. Arched eyebrows and all. God, how I’ve missed it. “I thought you said you were getting Chinesefood?”
“Well sure, but the restaurant’s dojo-adjacent.”
“So you decided to become ninjas?”
“I wouldn’t say that. Just students of the martial arts, really.”
“Not very good ones,” she says, nodding to my hand.
“Actually, this is an unrelated injury.”
“I got my hand caught in the door on the way out.”
“On the way out from your dojo?”
She turns her gaze toward Joan, who’s just emerged from the kitchen, a chunk of apple in her mouth.
“He’s telling the truth this time.”
The words hit me like a bo staff to the gut.
“Well next time, maybe clear it with me before putting our daughter in harm’s way,” Sheila says. In an effort to avert her eyes, she pretends to pick lint from her sweater.
“Oh, I wasn’t in danger,” Joan says, taking a second bite. “Dad’s the one who karate chopped the wood.”
The eyes flash up again.
“I thought you said your hand got stuck in a door?” she asks.
“Can’t both be true?”
Joan plops herself on the couch, remote in hand, as Sheila corners me in the foyer beside the fake flowers. She lowers her voice, and I pull my head close to hear her. “Listen, I appreciate you showing her a good time and all—”
“It’s my pleasure,really—”
“I wasn’t finished, David.”
“As I was saying, I appreciate it, but you can’t act so impulsively. Sometimes it’s perfectly acceptable just to…I don’t know…eat eggrolls and call it a day.”
“You’re right,” I say.
“You should’ve seen him!” Joan calls from the couch. “I mean, honestly Dad, I didn’t think you had it in you.”
“Thanks, sweetheart!” I call.
Sheila’s eyes stare through me. I have become a ghost here, I realize. And an unwanted one at that.
“You should go,” she says.
“I’m leaving,” I say.
But my body doesn’t do what my mouth says it will. The moment drags interminably, until Sheila sighs, and in an act of pity, reaches for my bag of ice.
“Come on,” she says, leading me toward the kitchen. “Let’s get you a refill for the road.”
A month prior to breaking boards, I broke Joan’s heart instead.
“It’s called a trial separation,” I said.
“It doesn’t mean we don’t love each other,” Sheila explained, taking Joan’s hands while seated in the living room of our once-family home. “It just means…we’re exploring other avenues.”
“Trial,” I added helpfully, “comes from the word ‘try’.”
Joan’s expression turned somehow blanker, which I took as a cue to continue filling the silence with words.
“And separation,” I continued, “that comes from the word—”
“Who cheated on who?” Joan asked, her eyes darting between us.
Sheila allowed that question to hang in the air.
“Well, sweetheart,” I said, “it’s a little more complicated than that…”
“But someone did, right? One of you cheated on the other one.”
Sheila offered me the opportunity to explain, but I did not accept it.
Sighing, Sheila stood and left the room.
In an instant, the house felt different. Larger. Emptier. A little more nondescript. Suddenly I had a million questions and no one to help me answer them. When had we changed the photos in those frames? When did we get that coatrack? I adjusted myself on the couch cushion, trying hard to find the butt groove I’d been carving out for years.
“So you did this to us, huh, Dad?” Joan asked.
My head sagged toward my chest in a nod.
“Why? Why would you do it?”
How to explain it to a ten-year-old? Or a 43-year-old, for that matter?
“Honey,” I said, “I swear to you, if I knew, I’d let you know.”
Every Saturday night following “ka-ra-te” lessons, Joan and I’d order the 21 and the 56 and then curl up on the couch to watch kung fu movies in my newly leased apartment. Nothing like seeing Bruce Lee destroy a room full of bad guys to help put things in perspective.
“You know he’s dead now,” I say, reaching for the chopsticks to heap another pile of lo mein onto my plate.
“Bruce Lee is?”
“How’d he die? Like in a fight?”
“A bad reaction to a pill, I think.”
For a few minutes, we watch in silence as Lee work the nunchucks, its batons blurring in the air like a couple of low swooping bats. The endless stream of bad guys eventually comes to its end, and there’s Lee—the hero of the day—sweat-drenched and unstoppable.
I pass the posters Scotch-taped to the wall while making my way to the fridge.
“Juice box?” I ask, flinging the door wide and grabbing two without waiting for her answer.
“I just don’t get it,” she says.
“Like, he can kick ass for all those years—”
“—kick butt for all those years, and then just take the wrong pill one day and croak? I mean…he’s supposed to be this bad ass, right?”
I stare into the fridge for half a minute or more, saying nothing.
“Dad?” she calls.
“You forgot to say, ‘Language.’”
“Now hurry up and get over here,” she says, her eyes still glued to the screen. “You’re missing the best part.”
I do exactly as she says. Anything to keep me from missing more of the best part.
I know what you’re thinking, but it wasn’t like that at all. She wasn’t my secretary or our housekeeper or our babysitter. She wasn’t anyone I even really knew.
She was the claims adjuster from the insurance company sent over to take a look at our car. Sheila had hit a curb and thrown the entire wheel well out of alignment. As complicated as these things can be, it was really as simple as that.
Together, the woman and I paced around the exterior of the car, inspecting everydetail. She cradled a clipboard in her left arm and took copious notes, asked one insufferable question afteranother.
Her name doesn’t matter, her measurements don’t matter, who gives a shit what she wore. Nothing matters here aside from the fact that I made a big mistake.
It was not sexy. It was the opposite of sexy—all bumbles and apologies alongside the snow blower in the garage. I remember the pair of fan rakes leaning haphazardly in the corner. I remember the fertilizer spreader laid on its side. There were our bikes jammed against one another, every last tire in need of some air.
When it was through, both the woman and I confessed that we’d never done anything like that before, and I knew at least one of us was telling the truth. We left things at that—no plans for future rendezvous, no plans for a future at all.
Two weeks later, Sheila and I received the check from the insurance agency. That’s when I broke. The following week, I used that money to pay for my first month’s rent in my new place.
At The Kung Pow School for Martial Arts, Sensei Doug continues with his pronunciation lessons.
“Hana,” he says.
“Hannah,” I say.
“Hana,” he says, “rhymes with ‘Ivana.’”
“And that means…inner ear?”
“Nose,” Sensei Doug says. “‘Hana’ means nose in Japanese.”
“I’m sorry, but what was inner ear again?”
“We haven’t gotten to that yet,” Joan reminds me.
“That’s right,” Sensei Doug says. “Thank you for listening, Joan.”
“The next word is ‘atama,’” Sensei Doug continues. “It means ‘head.’”
“Listen, Sensei. I appreciate the Japanese lessons and all, but I think I speak for both of us when I say that Joan and I are really more interested in how to kill a man with a single blow.”
“You won’t learn that here,” Sensei Doug says.
“No, I know. I mean, for legal purposes and all. But off the record, and hypothetically, where would one try to land that kind of punch?”
Joan rolls her eyes, hardly impressed by my attempts to impress her.
“Karate is about restraint,” Sensei Doug cuts in. “It’s as much about language and philosophy as it is physical practice.”
“If you don’t know how, just say so,” I tell him. “No shame there. I mean, there are probably plenty of people who don’t know how to pull that off.”
“More important than kicking or punching is knowing how to make yourself invisible,” he explains. “You must learn how to go undetected. How to walk like an elephant.”
“An elephant?” Joan asks.
I puff out my cheeks and offer my wide-stance demonstration.
“They’re surprisingly stealthy,” Sensei Doug says.
“Why not go with a tiger?’” I ask. “I mean, a tiger has got to be stealthier than a five-ton—”
“David,” Sensei Doug asks wearily, “do I look like a zoologist?”
“By no means.”
“It’s because I’m too busy looking like a black belt,” he says.
I take the opening to strike.
“So…are you a black belt, or do you just look like a black belt?”
Sensei Doug stomps toward the board-breaking station, releases his trademark “hi-ya,” and then plunges his palm into a pair of boards, both of which break easily.
Joan and I clap.
“I gotta hand it to ya,” I say. “You sure as hell look the part.”
Joan giggles. I chuckle. I take my victories where I can.
A week later, in the middle of REO Speedwagon’s “Keep on Loving You,” the phone rings. I read it as a sign.
“It’s your daughter.”
“Even better,” I say. “What’s up?”
“Do you have a minute?”
“I don’t know, I’m pretty busy making mac and cheese for one.”
“So should I call you back?”
“What? No, I’m joking. I’m lonely as hell over here.”
“Oh, good. Well, not good, but…”
“How can I help?” I ask.
“My teacher’s having us write about someone we admire.”
“It’s not you, Dad.”
“It’s Bruce Lee.”
“But since you know so much about him—or you act like you do—well, I was hoping you could fill me in a little.”
“Happy to. Let me grab my computer. If memory serves, he’s got a pretty good Wikipedia page…”
For the next half hour or so, I walk Joan through most of Bruce Lee’s filmography, paying special attention to 1971’s Fist of Fury and 1972’s The Way of the Dragon. It’s the longest we’ve ever talked together on the phone. Every second hurts.
“…I mean, these are some of the classics,” I say, scrolling through the page. “I guess if I had to rank them…”
“Dad, no one needs you to rank them. I just need to figure out why I admire him.”
I close my laptop. “So why do you?”
“I don’t know. Because he kills bad guys?”
“Sure, but why else?”
“Well, I guess he seems sort of wise sometimes. I got a quote here.”
“Can I hear it?”
She clears her throat. “So he said, ‘Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it.” She pauses.
“Is that it?” I ask.
“It goes on, but that’s the part I like.”
“The part about water?”
“I don’t know why. I just sort of like picturing it, I guess.”
“No, I get it,” I say. “You’re right. That’s some wise stuff.”
“Dad?” she says.
“You think you can swing by and maybe help me wrap this up?”
“It’s due tomorrow.”
“Jesus, honey? You waited until tonight?”
“Well you always say you work best underpressure.”
“Sure, Joanie, but I’m an idiot, remember?”
I check the clock—7:24.
“Fine. I’m leaving now. Tell Mom I’m coming.”
“Arigato,” she says.
“Arigato,” I say.
I run—don’t walk—toward the car.
Our house looks beautiful in the dark. Two-story Cape Cod, green shutters on a white frame. Sheila and I had come across it a little over a decade prior, when she was pregnant with Joan. The realtor had gone on and on about the natural light and the master bath, but all we cared about was the nursery.
“The crib will go here,” Sheila had said, and I’d nodded in confirmation. But what the hell did I know about crib placement? All I knew was that entering that house had been like watching our future unfurl at a much-too-rapid pace. And yet, at the same time, I couldn’t get there fast enough.
Following the down payment, we’d used what money remained to make our house feel like home: stripping the wallpaper, painting every room, replacing the light fixtures and the front door. When it was all said and done, we were two weeks away from meeting Joan.
“What do we name her?” I’d asked one night while seated in our lime green breakfast nook. It was midnight, we were eating ice-cream, and the world was perfect.
Sheila had taken one last bite of rocky road, then said, “How about Joan?”
“Like Joan of Arc?”
“I don’t know. Just…Joan like Joan, I guess.”
“I like it,” I’d said, peering into the backyard’s darkness. “We’ll put Joan’s swing set right there.”
“Right there,” Sheila had agreed.
Back then we knew everything.
A decade later, as I park the car and head toward the house, I know nothing all over again. It’s the kind of humbling that feels like a punishment.
“Psst,” Joan hisses, directing my attention to her second-story window. “Get over here. And walk like an elephant, would ya?”
I puff out my cheeks, spread my legs wide, then snap a twig or three. “See? This is why elephants aren’t stealthy.”
Joan lowers the fire escape rope ladder I’d installed in her room years before.
“Oh no,” I say. “I’m not about to scale my own home.”
“Bruce Lee would.”
“So that’s how we’re gonna play this, huh? You’re pitting me against the man you admire most?”
“Well played,” I say, pressing my hands to the rope, which immediately twists, nearly bucking me back to the ground. I manage to make the vertical ascent nonetheless—one hand in front of the other, never looking down. I try to adjust to the object (the house), but mostly just end up pounding my body against the siding every time I push off a little too hard.
Joan reaches beneath my armpits and lifts me through her open window. I topple to the carpet.
“So stealthy,” she laughs.
“I like to make an entrance,” I say, springing up and reaching for the open notebook on her desk. “Now let’s see how you’re coming along.”
I try to focus on the words, but it’s hard, mostly because all I want is to focus on her. To throw myself at her mercy and beg for forgiveness, to explain to her what I couldn’t explain to myself: why I’d done such a God-awful thing to all of us. I blink twice, staring hard at the words as I try to bring them to focus. I manage it on the second try, and I’m pleasantly surprised by her progress. Not only did she have the good sense to bypass Bruce Lee’s filmography, but she went a step further to offer a bit of autobiography, too: namely, how watching Lee’s films with her father helped instill within her “a love for the art of karate.”
“Oops, I think you left out a few words,” I say, re-reading the line. “I think you meant your ‘board-breaking ninja father…’”
“Dad, it’s an essay,” she says, “so it has to be true.”
“Honey,” Sheila calls from the hallway. “We’re thinking about getting some dessert if…”
The door swings wide and suddenly I find myself facing not one but two adversaries: my wife and some man I’ve never seen.
“David!” Sheila says, her body stiffening. “What a…surprise. When did you get here?”
“You know this guy?” asks the man alongside her. He’s a chiseled-chin, crew-cut type—a guy sure to live out the entirety of his natural life in a Polo shirt and chinos.
“This is David,” she introduces. “My husband.”
“Now, Dad!” Joan signals. “Kick him in the hana.”
I consider it, watching the whole scene play out in my mind. I don’t like the way it ends.
“Joan,” I laugh, “no one’s kicking anyone in the hana.”
“Hello, David,” the man says, extending a hand. “The name’s Gerald. A pleasure.”
“Gerald,” I say, taking that hand. “Good to know you.”
We are so civil to one another that it no longer feels like real life.
“I’m sorry, can we just back up for a second?” Sheila asks, running her hands through her hair. “Can someone tell me what’s going on here?”
“I needed help on a paper,” Joan explains.
“She was supposed to tell you I was coming,” I add.
Three sets of eyes turn to Joan.
Deception, Sensai Doug had explained, is the clearest path to victory.
“Well hey, I better let you all get on with your night,” I say, taking my leave. “Dessert sounds great, though. You should all have some.”
Everyone stares at me as if I’ve lost my mind. Maybe I have.
“And that paper,” I say, continuing my backpedal toward the window, “that paper looks really great, honey. I think you’ve got a winner.”
“Uh…David?” Sheila says.
“We have a front door, you know.”
“And you’re welcome to use it.”
“Oh! Oh, I know,” I say, reaching for the windowpane. “But with the karate lessons and all, I figured I might as well put some of these new agility skills to good use.”
If a less satisfying answer exists, I couldn’t think of it.
“Well, suit yourself, I suppose,” Sheila says.
In a single motion, I kick my legs out the window and hold tight to the rope ladder. My board-breaking hand aches as I do.
“Night, sweetheart,” I say, giving Joan a wink. She lifts her hand as if greeting a space alien.
I make my way down the ladder, each tangled step leading me farther away from the person I love the most.
I land in the perennials, dust myself off, and then make my way toward the car. Glancing back, I watch Joan pull the rope ladder up behind me, rung after rung after rung.
I wave in the off-chance anyone is watching. I smile, just in case.
B.J. Hollars is the author of several books, most recently The Road South: Personal Stories of the Freedom Riders, Flock Together: A Love Affair With Extinct Birds, From the Mouths of Dogs: What Our Pets Teach Us About Life, Death, and Being Human, as well as a collection of essays, This Is Only A Test. In the fall of 2019, his forthcoming book, Midwestern Strange: Hunting Monsters, Martians and the Weird in Flyover Country, will be released.